Machu Picchu

20090502_Machu Picchu_2189I´ll never forget where I was on Kentucky Derby Day 2009.

The sun is still high in a remarkably high sky, chasing the clouds from the left corner of the horizon to the right along the jagged ridge of the Andes mountains.  The moutain apus guard the valley of the lush green ancient city,  jewel of Peru, and emblem of the Inca civilization.

There are several tourists still scattered along the high terraces to enjoy their perilously few remaining moments with Machu Picchu.

I´ve never been much into archaeological ruins, to be honest, and the tour here was similarly uninspiring.  Irrigation systems hewn into the rock, massive quarries, interlocking stones–all interesting.  But that´s not what makes this place special.

The dominant features of Machu Picchu are place and color.  A city wedged like a saddle onto the granite monsters of the Andes, it serves as an observation point to all their rustic grandeur.  These terraces, once used as hubs of agriculture, now form a virtual amphitheatre from which to view Huanay Picchu, the Rio Urubamba, the main square of the city, and ranges of the Andes two and three layers deep.

Clouds shifting around Macchu Picchu
Clouds shifting around Macchu Picchu

Clouds form a constantly shifting backdrop and frame for the former, infusing the city with life.

The color is green.  Luscious.  Verdant.  Rampant.  Green covers almost every inch of the city that isn´t a structure.  The hillsides drip with it.  It´s as if the Incas, who used to revere their sacred gods with gold in their temples, have changed their minds in the afterlife–Pachamama now loves green, and the world is better for it.

For the second time within a week, our morning began with a 4:00 am wrist-watch alarm wake-up.  Still groaning and half asleep, we began the final intense ascent into the sacred city.  (Yes, dad, they do have buses, so you´re a go for your next trip.)  After an hour of climbing the steep stairs outside Auguas Calientes, an hour of sweating and panting and gasping for oxygen-poor breaths, an hour of cursing the idea of not taking the bus, we arrived at the end of the hike and the main gate of Macchu Picchu with a real sense of accomplishment and joy.  And fatigue.

12 hours of exploring later, the fatigue has not faded, and neither has the joy.  And tomorrow?  We sleep in.

Me, Mike, Paul, and the Frenchies
Me, Mike, Paul, and the Frenchies

The Salkantay Trek

salkantay mapScraps of journal entries logged on our Salkantay trek…

I have it from people in the know that the Salkantay trek to Macchu Picchu is a more difficult, more spectacular version of the classic Inca Trail.  As I didn´t want to be hiking with 500 other people (the number that are allowed to begin the hike each day) and as I didn´t intend to reserve 6 months in advance, Salkantay, the second highest mountain in the Cusco area, was the direction of our journey.

The day of the trek began inauspiciously with a 4:00 am start, and it would get worse before it got better..  As we traveled to the beginning of the trail via two-lane, rural, dirt highway, we were delayed two hours by a semi pile-up.  Instead of quick relief from professionals, everyone thought it would be fun to see what would happen if the issue were left to those sitting in their cars to solve.  What was especially interesting to me was the all-access pass anyone walking by had to the show.  In the States, we´re used to being cordoned-off 200 feet away from anything interesting as soon as it happens.  Then again, the roadway is usually cleared fairly quickly.

Eventually, the problem was solved by a group effort to move the stack of lumber lying in the road, and push the trailer of one of the trucks about a foot to allow space for cars to pass.  An hour later, we were having our breakfast of bread, butter, and tea in Mollepata, the beginning of the trek.

Our group was large (larger than anyone had signed up for) and fairly international.  The 16 consisted of: 2 French, 2 Swedes, 1 Irish, 2 Aussies, 3 USA, 1 Brit, and 5 Candians.  Began to get pretty attached to a few of them, especially the Aussies: Tram and Nij.

Salkantay MountainDay 1: We hiked shortcuts in an effort to make up time.  After about 8 hours of hiking, I. am. beat.  I feel no effects of altitude sickness outside of my never-dying cold, but it certainly affects my ability to hike.  I have been constantly short of breath.  My quads ache from the climbing.  And my feet hurt.  By the end of the first night, we were at camp at Soraypampa at 3900 meters.  Sleeping in long johns and every piece of clothing I brought on the trip, I awoke at about 3am, unable to sleep from the cold. 

Day 2: Commonly known as the hardest day of the trek, the first 3 hours climb steeply to the highest point on the trail, Salkantay Pass (4800 meters).  Paul had to get an alcohol rub by our guide, Darwin, to survive the day.  The last 5 hours was almost all steep downhill through a minefield of bruising, badgering rocks.  At many points, the trail was a stream.  Barely surviving by this point.  My calves express their displeasure.

Day 3: From the category, ¨Topics You Never Want to Read About.¨  One thing must be described to properly understand our situation.  As Paul and I suffer through stomach issues, it is done without the benefit of a toilet.  Since the beginning of the trek, a ¨toilet¨usually amounts to no more than a hole built into the bottom of a hut, sometimes it is simply leaning against a tree, maybe it is a commode, but with no seat to sit upon or any water to flush.  So that simple sweet relief of sitting and waiting is a fantasy from faraway lands.  As is not being swarmed by mosquitoes in the process…

Uneventful day of up and down hiking.  Relaxing hot springs in the evening. 

Also, I´ve rediscovered the love of my life: passion fruit.

Camps have been at progressively lower elevation and warmer.

Day 4: The trek today is entirely on the railroad track to Aguas Calientes, where we´ll spend the night.  Flat.  Sigh.  Thank you, Lord.

Machu Picchu awaits.

It is not a cruise.

It´s the first bed I´ve laid upon in a week, following many nights of cold sleeping bags and mosquito-infested tents.  Nevertheless, my body´s impassioned pleas for rest are all naught as a veritable cacophony gathers in the hallway of my hostal, gathers steam, stampedes the wall and crashes down on my bed.   If I concentrate with enough precision, I can isolate one sound from another: a hammer attacking a nail in the mode of rural construction, a screaming baby, pounding footsteps up concrete stairs, incoherent babbles from a badly dubbed movie, the shrieking of newly arrived travelers. This cacophony drowns out the rumblings of my stomach, uneasy from altitude and whatever unknown bacteria has caused no small amount of discomfort over the past week. 

When I tell people about my travel plans, I am struck by how often their responses resemble something like, ¨Wow, that sounds great.  What a nice vacation!¨  I usually smile and say, ¨Thank you.¨ But what I really want to say is: yes, it can be great.  But it can also suck.  It can be extremely frustrating, debilitating, and even humiliating.  In fact, it´s a lot like life. 

Travel is a crucible.  It enhances experience, kind of like a drug.  It is not easy and it is not always fun, but it is ultimately, scintillating.   The trick is to learning to treasure each good and bad experience. 

At least that´s what I tell myself as I cover my head with my pillow and try again to find that special, ephemeral sleep zone…

The Antisabbadical


Feeling feeble.  And a tad rushed.  And yet, T – 5 hours I will awake and board a plane for Lima, Peru.  “Why?” you may ask…

“He goes because he must, as Sir Galahad toward the Grail, knowing that, for those who can live it, this alone is life.” (Evelyn Underhill)

Catch up with you soon from the other side of the equator.